For a self-described World War II geek like Daniel Scharfenberg, of Chanhassen, getting a scholarship to attend the National World War II Museum’s summer program in Normandy, France, is a dream come true.
Scharfenberg is a 2016 Chanhassen High School graduate who just completed his junior year at Bemidji State University where he is a history major. He’s interning at the Carver County Historical Society’s museum in Waconia this summer.
The World War II museum is located in New Orleans, and among the many programs it has, it includes a summer program for students studying World War II. Scharfenburg will spend a day in orientation at the museum July 7, then fly to France where he will tour to see the beaches and battlefields of Normandy. He’ll be in France through July 22. The scholarship’s value is $5,600.
Scharfenberg first learned of the opportunity through an Instagram acquaintance. Scharfenberg has an Instagram account called ww2_daily_photography, devoted to all things about World War II. He has 67.8 thousand followers from all over the world.
“He talked about all the things he got to do on the trip and he posted his photos,” Scharfenberg said. “I asked, ‘How do you apply?’”
Scharfenberg almost immediately got to work, to prepare a résumé and cover letters ready to send.
He submitted the first week of January. When he got the email about his acceptance, his reaction was “hot dog!” He only pays for the plane ticket to New Orleans. His scholarship covers his flight to and from Paris, lodging, food, and the coach buses.
He’s excited to walk along Normandy Beach and visit the battlegrounds and locations about which he has passionately studied and read. He wants to collect a small vial of sand from Normandy Beach to bring back, though he’s unsure if that’s permitted.
Scharfenberg is the son of Steve and Barbara Scharfenberg of Chanhassen. He has a twin brother Max, who is studying art at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. His older sister Ellen is an art teacher in Hillsboro, Wisconsin.
“This is an amazing opportunity and as a historian he is thrilled!” Barbara Scharfenberg said, by email. “He’s pretty passionate and well-informed.” She jokingly predicts, “He’ll wind up running the tour he’s going on.”
“Seriously ever since he was a little boy he loved history,” Barbara said. “He even went to Civil War camp at The Landing in Shakopee and named his pretend rifle ‘Lorraine.’”
“I’ve always been interested in history, in the military, the army and soldiers,” Scharfenberg said. “It started with the Civil War, then World War II. My grandpa was in World War II ... he didn’t like to talk about it.” instead, the youngster fed his interest with popular movies and television series like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” and books like the “Eyewitness” series he read as a fifth-grader.
“Books are what really get into topics,” Scharfenberg said. “Films can be inaccurate.”
He prefers books, including autobiographies like Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” and “Helmet for My Pillow,” by Robert Leckie, both former World War II marines and historians. He’s also recently read “The Good War,” by Studs Terkel for a college class. The book is accounts from war survivors including the military, civilians, and women. “I’ve learned to be very skeptical of history written by the victors.”
Scharfenberg’s parents and siblings take his history obsession in stride. “They put up with it,” he said. “My grandmother wants all the family photo albums to come to me because I care about family history. Someone’s got to.”
Fortunately, Scharfenberg’s obsession was recognized and encouraged by fellow history geek and one-time Civil War reenactor Dave Carlson, his high school social studies and history teacher who is retiring after this school year.
“Daniel was every teacher’s favorite student,” Carlson said in a recent interview. “After class he would stop and talk. He was always following up after class with lots of questions. The more I got to know him, the more difficult and in-depth his questions would go.
“He’d come up and say ‘Ya know, I did some research,’” Carlson recalled. “He’s totally hungry for history. He asks a lot of ‘What ifs,’ or ‘How about if.’ He even knew of (Union Major General George B.) McClellan’s learning the enemy’s strategy through a message wrapped around three cigars. His knowledge is that in-depth.
“While I can hold my own regarding U.S. history, Dan’s passed me up since his freshman year in college.” Carlson’s proud that Scharfenberg won the World War II scholarship. “This is going to feed the monster for a long time. This scholarship, I think will be the first of many, not in terms of money but education. It’s just something he can add to his bag of tricks.”
“We all go into education with the intent of making a difference,” Carlson mused. “You have hundreds of thousands of students, but you never know if you’ve made an impression on a student. With Daniel, it’s like it’s reaffirmed everything I ever thought about being a teacher.
“To watch that evolution is amazing. Let’s be honest. As a high school teacher, you can only go so far and so deep with these kids. Daniel wants to go deep. And once he’s dug a deep hole, he doesn’t come up, he digs horizontally. Like a dog with a bone.”